JON CARDINELLI on a prop’s conditioner woes, Italy’s rugby heartland, and a proposal on a Venetian gondola.
‘It’s an honour to have the Springboks here in my town,’ exclaims Nicolas, our cab driver.
We're en route to the Boks’ first training session of the week. Nicolas is regaling us with stories about his own rugby background, and why the sport is more popular than football here in the Veneto.
It’s hard to concentrate on the details, though, when Nicolas is hurtling down a typically narrow, cobblestone street. A car approaches from the opposite direction, but our driver shows no concern or sign of slowing. Unbelievably, he turns to face the three petrified journos in the back seat, and delivers the next revelation: ‘Did you know, I played against Jean de Villiers in the U21 World Cup?’
It would appear that our cabbie was in South Africa for the 2002 U21 World Cup tournament. He played club rugby and even for Italy A until injuries forced him to focus on coaching at the Petrarca Rugby Club, as well as driving a cab part-time.
He speaks of his love for rugby and his desire to see Italian rugby thrive. Even though Nicolas is now retired, his passion as well as a pronounced cauliflower ear mark him as an authentic rugby man.
Padova is certainly full of such characters. The Boks have been taken aback by the attention this past week, even the head coach, who has supposedly seen it all.
What surprised Heyneke Meyer most, however, was the proportion of stunning Italian women in the welcoming party that met the visitors at the airport. ‘I was a bit worried at one point,’ chirped Meyer, ‘as I thought this may be a distraction for the players!’
But then the Boks have had other problems this week. On Monday morning, Sunday Times scribe Craig Ray and I bumped into Coenie Oosthuizen outside the team hotel. The mountain of a man was on a mission to … wait for it … buy more conditioner.
‘Lood uses all of mine!’ the quirky tighthead blurted, before scooting across the road with an empty bottle of conditioner in his oversized hand. Ray and I looked at each other, then at Coenie’s sparse tuft of hair, then at the conditioner bottle. A suitable amount of laughter followed.
Coenie had no time to take offence, though, as he was on a mission. ‘Sien jou later, manne!’ he barked from a distance. I’ve since had it confirmed that both Oosthuizen and De Jager are two of the most entertaining characters in the squad. Rugby's Odd Couple, maybe?
Ray has battled with conditioning woes of a different sort in Italy, the Carb State. ‘Good luck banting in this place,’ Bok team doctor Craig Roberts said earlier in the week. Indeed, after resisting the stuff in Dublin and London, Ray has succumbed in Padova and Venice. And really, is that such a bad thing?
The pizza and pasta dishes have been outstanding in terms of quantity and quality, and the local proprietors expect you to clean your plate. We found this out at a trattoria on Padova’s Prato della Valle when a strict septuagenarian in a cravat refused to leave the table until we had finished the primi course. The implied threat was that there would be no secondi.
Meyer has gone on at length about South African players adapting to local weather conditions. On Monday night, a couple of the Saffa journos were forced to do the same after venturing into Venice.
At that point, the famous city was literally underwater. We were forced to shell out €20 each for waterproof gear, before spending even more on a water taxi that would convey us to San Marco Square.
The whole adventure was rather comical. We battled unsympathetic winds that turned our cheap umbrellas inside out within seconds. We waded through ankle-deep water on the square itself, and all but swam up the narrow walkways that led up to the famous Harry’s Bar.
Here we savoured a drink, just as Hemingway and the like had decades before. The bar staff then reminded us that the last train to Padova was leaving in less than 30 minutes, and so with that, we hastened to brave the storm again and hail another water taxi.
Fortunately, there was another opportunity to return to Venice later in the week, and at a time when the sun was out and the sky was clear. On Friday, my girlfriend and I made that chance count.
I’m told that marriage proposals rarely play out as planned. My own was no different. For three weeks, I coveted a rock with the same paranoia and obsession as a character out of Lord of the Rings. I lashed out at any maître d, bouncer, and well-meaning club owner who attempted to check the coat that contained the precious.
And then, with the finish line in sight, I was forced to clear another hurdle in the form of an overly enthusiastic Venetian gondolier. Try building up to the all-important question when you’re being constantly interrupted with factoids about Marco Polo’s childhood home. It may have been fascinating and relevant on any other occasion, but not on that particular day.
With the window of opportunity closing, I turned to face the portly gentleman in the striped jersey and straw hat. I put my finger to my lips. It may have been rude, but to his credit, the gondolier gave me the thumbs up. He knew what was coming.
The gondola glided beneath the Rialto Bridge, and then turned to double back towards the dock via the less memorable arterial waterways. It was now or never. I asked the question, the ring was safely delivered, and the answer, to my eternal gratitude, was a yes.
Back at the dock, the gondolier, whose name was also Marco, scolded me for not declaring my intentions sooner. That rage was short-lived, however, and he subsequently embraced and congratulated us both.
He told us that we were the 352nd couple to make the ultimate commitment on his particular boat. A somewhat sobering stat, and yet, even now, several days later, I would recommend the experience. Sometimes, originality is overrated.
As far as the rugby goes, my first impression of the Stadio Euganeo was not a good one. While I had been accredited for the game, the authorities deemed it fit to seat me in the crowd instead of in the press box. When I summoned the accreditation officer to rectify the situation, the only response I received was a soulless shrug.
Luckily, one local journalist proceeded to argue my case in what I can only assume was very persuasive Italian. Before I knew it, I was sitting on the halfway line in the best media seat in the house. Said journalist was seated right below me, and he turned around at every break in play to check that I was still enjoying the atmosphere. ‘You see,’ he said in a thick accent, ‘this is the way it is in Italia. There’s always drama, but everything works out in the end.’
Words that sum up my week. Venice, Padova, Italy. Rugby or not, I will definitely be back.
Photo: Frank Bienewald/Getty Images